Saturday, February 14, 2009

Uh oh, biological essentialism!

by Josh Franklin

I've been following the debate about the recent Prince column "An Anscombe Valentine's Day", and I honestly can't bear to read the word "oxytocin" one more time. A perplexing comment posted by one commenter, a member of the Anscombe Society, reads: "Certainly the physiology of sex is more complex than oxytocin; I'm certainly no biologist and I know that. But this hormone is the one with by far the most profound consequences for the psychological consequences of sex. Of course innumerable pleasurable endorphins are released during sex, but that is merely a momentary, fleeting sensation." Well, I'm no biologist, but I'm not going to take an argument about biology seriously when it's prefaced like that. What's surprising about this comment is that it seems to make explicit the lack of real biological knowledge among most of those who make arguments based on biology.

Biology is deployed constantly in our discourse on gender. Biology is the justification for defining men and women as distinct and stable groups, the justification for heterosexuality, and the justification for making generalized judgements about how all women must think, act, feel, or experience their lives. The truth is that all of these questions are open, to some degree, from a biological standpoint. Nevertheless, these scientific 'truths' are consistently deployed to reinforce a variety of sexist ideas, and the oxytocin 'truth' seems to be very fashionable right now.

As I understand it, feminism is very concerned with this kind of oppressive deployment of knowledge. Part of the emancipatory mission of feminism is deconstructing the limiting notions of identity imposed by the misconstruction of scientific truth. That's why I was a little bit uncomfortable as I watched The Vagina Monologues last night. To hear over and over again that a vagina is more than something that you have, but rather something that you are, something that defines you, an integral part of your identity, was a bit jarring after a long indoctrination in feminism, a school of thought that says that we are not defined by our biology. The production was quite moving and the sense of community reaching across such a wide cultural expanse was powerful. However, I'm worried that making such a big deal about The Vagina is counterproductive.

As a person with a penis questioning my relationship with masculinity, The Vagina Monologues are a bit discouraging. As Franki titled her piece earlier this week, "No penises, please!"; The Vagina Monologues specifically identifies males and excludes them. I'd like to note that this exclusion ignores the ostensibly complex construction of gender; apparently we can be defined by our biology.

I don't want to suggest that having a vagina is a meaningless experience. But where that experience is constituted by a complex intersection of biology, sociocultural circumstances, and individual being, The Vagina Monologues seem to want to recast that nuance in the simple terms of biological essentialism. I applaud The Vagina Monologues for breaking an unfortunate silence; I just wish they had done it in a way that encouraged us to reconsider and explore our own gendered individuality, rather than locking us again into biologically reified binary categories.

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